The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 4. Villette
Varying the next few years with visits to London and to friends, Charlotte Brontë found recuperation, and her temperament underwent some steeling. All her loved ones in early graves or separated by “surge and blast,” she can now bear to look back, not absolutely without repining, but with much of the artist’s detached and curious interest at what once was. Another story was owed to the public, and, perhaps, that one, too suddenly told in the unpublished Professor, might unroll itself anew. Fresh observations, too, had been added, and, when Villette opens, it is the figure of Dr. John that catches the eye—the boy John with his tiny companion Paulina—whether or not a personal reminiscence, certainly a charming effort of imagination. But the main theme of Villette is the remembrance of Brussels, and we may suppose that the effort to resolve past discords was now largely conscious. In any case, there is no better exercise for the student of art and its processes than to compare the unembarrassed handling of the material of experience in Villette, with the treatment of the same material in The Professor. For all that, the material still counts for too much, and one feels, as one does not feel in Jane Eyre or in the case of Caroline Helstone, that the characters, however changed the circumstances, are, nevertheless, real people, to be actually found somewhere. One does feel, and to a degree which, artistically, is painful, that, after all, all this is observation or record. We have an uneasy fear that we are looking into other peoples’ houses. The result is a novel which is a miracle of characterisation, and most supreme where it seems most literal, as in the wonderful “patriotic” scene in the schoolroom, or in Lucy’s tremors over her letter. Yet, even in such places, our pleasure is alloyed by our consciousness that we are being put off with mere description. At times, too, when we are out of the school and where no great interest is taken by the author in the character observed, it is evident that literalness of transcription has interfered with artistic effort, as in the account of the actress Rachel. As novel-readers, we do not expect to be reading a diary. Nor is this weakness in Villette—a weakness due to the absence of imagining and to its author’s contentment in merely seeing life’s pages turn over—redeemed by the merits of the book. The amazing variety of characters does not remedy it, nor does the fact that this weakness is counted a chief excellence by those whose interest is in the biography rather than in its subject, in her life rather than in her work, in the least degree cure it. Villette is a brilliant novel; in it, Charlotte Brontë threw off the incubus of the past, without transforming the past into the ideal; or, in other words, she built on her experience without making her experience our experience of the soul. Villette is the work of a great genius; but it does not bring the solace that comes from great art. It makes us sad; but it leaves our eyes dry. We watch beings who suffer, without sharing their suffering; our identity is not merged in the human crisis because, speaking of the book as a whole, it is not poetry. At the end, doubtless, it is, and we put it down, participating in that distant sorrow. But this is only to say that, at the end, it achieves what it has not achieved during its progress.
This tour de force was the last of Charlotte Brontë’s writings. Two chapters of a novel, strangely called Emma—a sort of challenge to fame—remain from her few months of married life. She had said her say as the poets say it, and was dead before she was thirty-nine.